A number of initiatives and circumstances have aligned to push the topic of microcredentialing to the surface in the higher education space. Specifically, disruption in traditional undergraduate degree expectations, greater need to demonstrate skills to employers, and heightened control and privacy concerns. Let’s take each of these topics in turn.
Disruption in Traditional Undergraduate Degree Programs
While prestige continues to convince potential students that the value of a Tier 1 research institution (like Texas A&M) may be worth the time/money/effort, the rise of MOOCs and certification-oriented programs are chipping away at the value proposition. As Christenson and Eyring point out, universities’ tendencies to become bigger and better can blind them to disruptive technologies (Christensen & Eyring, 2011). I believe that is what’s happening now, and if we in higher education do not adapt to the new reality, we will begin to fall behind.
We see some examples of successful adaptation. The Academic Innovation initiative and the University of Michigan (http://ai.umich.edu/) is one example. What makes such a program successful is the implementation of three strategic goals;
- Categorizing or un-bundling of skills and learning outcomes within university courses – that is, identifying outcomes and competencies taught within a course that directly map to marketable skills that employers want.
- Creating technology infrastructure to support the new academic economy – once course competencies are un-bundled, infrastructure to support the documentation and dissemination of those skill tokens must be in place.
- Creating new and flexible certification paths – The four-year predetermined bachelor’s degree will continue to lose marketability as the new academic economy takes shape. Persuading the faculty to adapt to the new paths of certification is a daunting task, especially for large, traditional Tier 1 institutions (like Texas A&M).
Demonstrated Skills to Employers
An important purpose of any undergraduate course of study is to make the graduate highly marketable in the workplace. But if I have a bachelor’s degree in architecture, what does that mean? Historically, employers have placed great weight on the prestige of the granting institution. If my degree is from Harvard, it carries more gravitas than say, the same degree from MyOnlineU. But the cost of a degree from a prestigious university is putting it more out of reach for average students. While they may prefer to go to Harvard, time, money, and convenience dictate another solution. Furthermore, I can send an employer my transcript, but the level of information will be the course. I will have a course title and a grade. Again, employers are left to infer skills taught and therefore the value of any given course. This will not continue to be “good enough.” The National Association of Colleges and Employers has begun to map some of the skills employers want, and it is rare that they are explicitly identified in traditional courses (Gray & Koncz, 2017). Creating educational support systems (both technical and administrative) will provide potential employers with greater detail about a potential employee’s skills, and I believe will make them more marketable in the long run.
Control and Privacy
How do students certify their academic credentials today? They contact the registrar, pay a fee, wait 5-7 business days, and then get a paper copy of their transcript with degrees awarded. By that time, an employer may have already hired another candidate and furnished their office. And who ultimately has control of the credential? Why, the university, of course. The new academic economy will require that learners have control of their own credentials; that is, the ability to selectively send them to whomever they wish, and only the credentials that matter. The method must be verifiable and robust enough to withstand the demise of credentialing agent. Blockchain technology promises to solve much of this case, and there are a few companies working on solving problems unique to academia, which are numerous. There is an open source project, borne out of the MIT Media Lab, named blockcert that demonstrates promise (“Blockchain Credentials,” 2018).
The Most Intractable Problem
I believe the hardest problem to solve won’t be the deconstruction of skills, or even the technology infrastructure. Faculty, especially at large institutions, are notorious for resisting change. The coming disruption will soon be more than an annoyance. Will our faculty be willing to change the way we think about what undergraduate education means? Can we recast our conception of certification? Will our university be up to the challenge? There are some indications that we have a Provost that understands the coming change. With strong leadership, I believe we will navigate the new academic economy successfully.